Yante Maten had a specific range he wanted to be drafted in.
It was actually fairly high in the first round, according to Georgia head coach Mark Fox. Essentially, if Maten was going to stay in the NBA draft, he needed to be assured of being a first-rounder without any wiggle room.
Those assurances couldn’t be made, which led to Maten’s return to Georgia. While the NBA is every player’s end-goal, Georgia sure stands to benefit by getting a player of Maten’s caliber back for another year.
“He had a target in the first round,” Fox said. “It wasn’t just the first round, it was higher than that. Obviously that’s a very smart move because if you slip a little bit and someone gets drafted out of place and everyone falls four or five spots, then it could be a nightmare for somebody.”
As a junior, Maten proved he was one of the SEC’s best big men by averaging 18.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. His numbers would have been higher if he didn’t sustain a Grade 2 MCL sprain against Kentucky on Feb. 18 within the first two minutes of the game. That game counted against his average and caused both numbers to slip by roughly a point and a rebound each.
Maten sat out the final four games of the regular season before competing against Tennessee and Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. A healthy Maten, along with eight returning contributors from last season’s team, will be a major positive for a Georgia team looking to compete against a fairly young but vastly improved SEC that placed South Carolina in the Final Four. Kentucky and Florida also made the Elite Eight, making the SEC the only conference to place multiple teams that far in the NCAA Tournament.
SEC teams did this despite featuring the youngest collective rosters in all of college basketball. That’s a big reason why Maten’s return is critical for Georgia.
“Any team that will have veterans coming back who are upperclassmen will have a good advantage in this league,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “We have so many young guys.”
Calipari noted that Maten’s injury against the Wildcats hurt Georgia in a game the Bulldogs still could have won. If Georgia won that game, perhaps its chances of making the NCAA Tournament would have increased by a significant margin.
As a senior, Fox anticipates growing Maten’s role some. As a junior, Maten added more 3-point shooting to his repertoire. He nearly tripled his 3-point attempts with 43 during the 2016-17 season and made 21 of them for a percentage of 48.8 percentage.
While Fox said Maten will look to improve certain aspects of his game, he will still be counted on to deliver in the paint.
“I think he’s evolved every year to do a little more,” Fox said. “That’s just a natural progression since the day he came. Will he be used exactly like he was last year? No. Will he evolve to a degree? Most certainly. Will he also go back to where he’s done most of his damage? Absolutely.”
Maten was a coaches’ first-team All-SEC selection and an AP second-team All-SEC honoree this past season. He would have likely made the AP first team if not for the knee injury. Maten should begin his senior season with a preseason All-SEC first-team selection while competing with Texas A&M center Robert Williams and Florida forward KeVaughn Allen for the preseason Player of the Year selection.
Fox kept an “open dialogue” with Maten throughout the draft process. He wasn’t surprised one way or the other about his decision. At the same time, Fox said there is always that sliver of worry that creeps in when it comes to potential early entries.
While Fox landed Norcross forward Rayshaun Hammonds – Georgia’s highest-rated recruit since former five-star guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – having Maten back can be considered the biggest key for a successful 2017-18 season.
“He obviously is an important piece for us,” Fox said. “He’s a proven player, a terrific player.”